The Fishery Management Illusion Continues

Posted on January 12, 2012

The illusion continues for NOAA Fisheries.

Last year the agency boldly announced it had ended overfishing. This week, the agency proudly announced that annual catch limits are now in place for most federal fisheries. Wonderful news, if either proclamation had roots in fact or could possibly translate into any good result.

Unable to muster the science to manage to the very high threshold specified by the Magnuson Stevens Act, NOAA Fisheries declared victory without even running the race. It ended overfishing and put a catch limit on every stock under management. On paper. And environmentalists cheered.

Recreational anglers are not cheering.

What will happen back in the real world now that the agency has claimed to have ended overfishing and put in annual catch limits without the science to adequately back it up? The rest of us will eventually have to pay the piper. The agency has built a house of cards and set catch limits that are not tethered to reality. When those limits are exceeded — and we are talking about limits on every single stock under management, the majority of which the agency knows nothing about — the agency will be sued. Sued relentlessly by environmental groups. With no tools to offer any other alternative, NOAA Fisheries will close stock after stock to comply with illusory catch limits. It is relatively easy to end overfishing and enforce catch limits if you simply don’t let anyone fish. And after every closure the environmentalists will cheer and commend the agency for its proactive stance. Won’t that make a good press release?

Real management is difficult and expensive, but infinitely more beneficial for the nation’s fisheries and the citizens who use and enjoy them. But functional management doesn’t seem to be the goal here. NOAA Fisheries has chosen the easier, but far more unpredictable path. By implementing everything from unfair catch shares to imaginary catch limits to archaic allocations, the agency has almost completely alienated its most valuable constituents — the anglers who actually use the nation’s marine resources and put back far more than they take out. Trust and partnership between the agency and the recreational community are at an all-time low. This community is counting the days until the Magnuson-Stevens Act comes up for reauthorization again. At this point it is hard not to believe the agency will eventually reap what it has sown, and that may not be a welcome outcome for the proper conservation of our marine resources.

The current and likely future situation is all the more regrettable when you consider that the Administration could have implemented the most turbulent provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in about 100 different ways — 99 of which would not have left scorched earth in their wake. As concerns mount over the strangling effects of over-regulation on the American economy, it is remarkable that the agency has elected to subject America’s anglers and all their economic potential to the singularly most restrictive interpretation of the law possible, never mind the consequences.

This Administration’s attitude towards fisheries management is strikingly similar to the one that gave the public Prohibition in the 1920s, and the results are likely to be the same. Prohibition, which made criminals out of ordinary citizens overnight, didn’t work because nobody wanted it to work except a small, hardcore group of extremists who didn’t drink alcohol. The country turned itself inside out, spent billions of dollars on a misguided campaign and took more than 10 years to correct its course. The current approach to federal fisheries management is on the same path.

Whether by choice or by circumstance, the agency has frittered away the good will of even the most reasonable of its constituents and has elected to hide behind an illusion of management. This is certainly not the agency the recreational community deserves or expects, nor is it one which contains the essentials of good management.